There are, tragically, too many examples to draw from here, but let's take my favorite: HSBC. For more than 10 years, this multinational bank laundered money for rogue states, drug cartels, and terrorists. When the authorities finally got around to doing something about it, they fined HSBC $1.9 billion -- or not quite 10 percent of its pre-tax 2012 profit. Nobody did time. None of the highly paid executives who oversaw these operations had to pay a personal fine. Nobody lost their job.
If a garden-variety hacker had defaced or DDoSed HSBC's website, however, he or she would be looking at up to 35 years behind bars. If they operated a Web service that allowed people to easily share copyrighted music and movies, they'd probably be in Gitmo at this moment.
Imagine this scenario: You're the high-ranking executive of a company in a highly regulated industry. You were told when you took the job that if you broke the rules, your employer would be fined a small percentage of the profits it made by breaking those rules, and you'd have to spend a few hours of your time giving depositions alongside a $600-an-hour attorney paid for by your bosses. The fine would be paid by someone else, and you would probably get a bonus for delivering a big payout to shareholders.
Gee, what a disincentive.
So let's forget corporate fines and focus on personal responsibility for a change. If you decide you want to jump in bed with criminal meth gangs or jihadists or just flaunt the rules, you should make that decision knowing you're risking years of federal time if you get caught. It wouldn't take much in the way of prosecutions to get that point across. Get a handful of Ivy League-educated bankers who are afraid to drop the soap in the showers, and these problems would disappear virtually overnight.
I am too much of a cynic to believe this will ever happen, at least in my lifetime. But it's satisfying to think about.
Are regulatory fines any use at all? What white collar crimes do you think warrant hard time? Post your thoughts below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article, "E.U. to Microsoft: Brother, can you spare a dime?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.